The exciting land of the rising sun is home to a massive variety of dishes that are distinct to their culture, and visitors to this unique country might have a hard time figuring out where they should even begin their food adventures! We’ve tried our best to list and describe the top ten Japanese dishes you should try when you travel to Japan, so without further ado, read on and try not to get too hungry!
Japanese Dishes #1 – Sushi
Sushi is quite possibly one of Japan’s most recognisable dishes. It is offered all over the world, and has been adapted by many global nationalities. However, everyone just knows that its roots are quintessentially Japanese.
A basic understanding of sushi is food that uses a type of rice seasoned with vinegar. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t always involve raw fish, rolled rice, and seaweed. This is important to understand before you head to Japan, because ordering ‘sushi’ there is much different from ordering it back home!
There are several different types of sushi (yay!) that you can look out for when in Japan, and they include (but are definitely not limited to!):
This is the most popular form of sushi, and is basically sushi rice and a filling, wrapped in seaweed and sliced into bite-sized pieces. Some of the most popular filling in Japan include tuna, cucumber, radish, and natto.
Discover the most traditional Japanese sushi rolls here.
A small mound of sushi rice with a dollop of wasabi and a filling on top. Some of the most popular toppings include maguro (tuna), toro (belly of tuna), ebi (shrimp) and salmon.
Deep-fried tofu pouches, filled with sushi rice. This is commonly found at conveyor-belt sushi restaurants, but you can also find them at convenience stores.
When a bowl of sushi rice is topped with a variety of ingredients, most commonly fresh seafood and tobiko (fish roe).
One of the most sought-after restaurants in Tokyo for premium sushi is Sushi Jiro. It’s so popular that a movie was made after this restaurant, ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’! Sukiyabashi Jiro is the owner and chef, and his philosophy is to serve his customers only the freshest and most delightful sushi. This restaurant is often booked in advance (sometimes by weeks and sometimes by months), so if you know you want a taste of this, head to this link to try and make a reservation now!
Japanese Dishes #2 – Ramen
Ahh, ramen. Whilst your head will always dream of sushi, ramen is probably the way to your heart. This flavoursome bowl of goodness is (usually) surprisingly light on toppings and visuals, however make no mistake in knowing that a lot of skill and effort goes into concocting the perfectly balanced soup base and subsequent ingredients which complete the dish.
Ramen has been known to touch the souls of its patrons, especially if eaten in the middle of Japan’s cold, cold winter – it rich and warm broth is perfect for those conditions.
Again, just like sushi, there are various types of ramen on offer. We’ve listed them below so you can familiarise yourself and make sure you try them all!
The soup in shoyu ramen is usually made with chicken stock, and is flavoured with mainly soy sauce. It’s relatively clear, and is the most common type of broth. Whilst the soup is chicken broth, the dish itself is can contain other proteins such as pork, beef, or fish.
The soup in shio ramen is also made with chicken stock, but is flavoured mainly with salt. It’s also relatively light in colour, and can be topped with other proteins such as pork, beef, or fish. This is one of the other most commonly offered soup bases in restaurants.
This ramen soup originated from Hokkaido and is flavoured heavily with miso (soybean) paste. The miso paste itself creates a rather thick, brown soup that’s quite rich in flavour and density. Hokkaido’s locals benefitted from this as it helped combat the harsh winter conditions of the north. Whilst it’s most common in Hokkaido, miso ramen can now be found almost anywhere in Japan.
This is a personal favourite! Tonkotsu ramen is made with pork bones which have been boiled down to create an umami-rich broth. It is normally mixed with chicken broth and pork fat, and the resulting soup created is thick and almost creamy. This soup is particularly popular around Kyushu (western Japan).
Some of the more popular toppings for ramen, and most of which you can expect to come with a standard bowl of ramen, include: chashu (fatty pieces of pork), menma (preserved bamboo shoots), negi (spring onions), moyashi (raw or cooked bean sprouts), tamago (hard boiled, soft boiled, or marinated eggs), nori (seaweed), naruto (steamed fish cake), corn, and butter.
Interested in learning the ins and outs of what makes ramen irresistible? You can now book a tour that will give you local knowledge about where to eat and just how to enjoy ramen to the fullest. You’ll also gain insight on a bit of the history of ramen, and finish off the fun experience with a bowl of ramen where the locals eat. If this is something you’re interested in, click here to make a reservation now!
We also selected for you the 10 best Ramen restaurants in Tokyo so feel free to check that out too: Best Ramen in Tokyo.
Japanese Dishes #3 – Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is a rough-around-the-edges, snack-like savoury pancake that is enjoyed by people of all ages in Japan. Its main ingredients are batter and cabbage, with selected toppings and ingredients which can take it from flat and minimal, to fat and overflowing. The dish is available all-around Japan, particularly amongst specialised restaurants, but it is especially popular in the cities of Hiroshima and Osaka, where they offer their own particular styles and variations.
Okonomiyaki is grilled on a griddle, usually right in front of customers, and served piping hot directly onto their plates. Along with the batter and sliced cabbage, common ingredients found in okonomiyaki include octopus, shrimp, pork, yam, and/or kimchi. Before cooking, all the ingredients are usually mixed together into a thick batter in a bowl, and then placed onto the grill.
Some of the most distinct features of okonomiyaki include the okonomiyaki sauce which is brushed on towards the end of the cooking process (it is sweet and slightly sour, almost like a Worcestershire sauce). A zig-zag pattern of mayonnaise will follow, then it is topped with shavings of katsuobushi (shaved bonito) and aonori (small flakes of dried seaweed). The okonomiyaki is then served to you with spatulas, which you can use to cut them into slices and consume nice and fresh.
In Osaka, they serve ‘Kansai-style’ okonomiyaki, which is the usual style as mentioned above. In Hiroshima, they serve ‘Hiroshima-style’ okonomiyaki. This is when the ingredients are cooked separately (i.e. the batter is cooked into a thin crepe, and ingredients are cooked separately), and then placed on top of the batter, and then that entire concoction is placed on top of yakisoba noodles. Remember to give it a go when you’re there!
Japanese Dishes #4 – Takoyaki
Takoyaki is one of the most popular street snacks across Japan. It’s actually become so popular that it’s transcended borders and is offered all around the world now, although often they can’t quite hit that ‘authentic’ mark like they do on the streets of Japan. More commonly known to foreigners as ‘octopus balls’, takoyaki is essentially round balls of fluffy dough, with octopus filling, served piping hot (like, right off the grill, so be careful when you bite into it!), topped with savoury sauce and other ingredients.
Takoyaki will always remind the locals of festivals and celebrations, because during these times, you will almost always find a stand (or two, or ten!) of takoyaki makers grilling up these delicious mounds of octopus-filled snacks for all the festival-goers. In saying that, takoyaki can also be found in restaurants (especially izakayas), convenience store, and regular street stands as well.
Takoyaki is made of batter, filled with tender octopus, pickled red ginger, green onion, and tempura bits. They’re cooked in half-spherical moulds, being turned around every few minutes to get the perfect circle and until the outside is a nice golden brown. Once finished, it is placed into a tray and topped with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, fish flakes, aonori seaweed, and green onion.
We recommend eating this as a snack every time you see it! It’s so addictive, and small tray will be demolished in no time at all. If you want, you can even book in a class to learn how to make these irresistible snacks back at home! What’s more exciting than gaining life skills in the kitchen that you can show off to friends and family back at home, particular ones that show off your travels of Japan? To book in a class, click on this link now!
Japanese Dishes #5 – Yakitori
Literally translating to grilled chicken, (‘yaki’ meaning grilled, and ‘tori’ meaning chicken), yakitori is essentially grilled chicken skewers made from all different parts of the chicken, such as the breasts, thighs, liver, various innards, and even the skin. They’re usually cooked over a charcoal grill, which gives them a delicious smoky flavour, and are usually enjoyed with a beer.
Yakitori is one of the more inexpensive Japanese cuisine options, and is most commonly served in restaurants specialising in yakitori (called yakitori-ya), or izayakas, which are casual drinking establishments which are almost like pubs. They are also typical popular food stalls at festivals alongside takoyaki.
Some of the most popular yakitori skewers include:
- Negima – Usually consisting of chicken thigh grilled with a sweet sauce, skewered with leek.
- Momo – Skewers of pure chicken thigh.
- Tsukune – Chicken mince meatballs.
- Torikawa – Grilled, crispy chicken skin.
- Tebasaki – Crispy chicken wing skewers.
- Reba – Grilled chicken livers.
- Nankotsu – Grilled cartilage. This skewer contains very little meat, but it’s the nice crispy crunch that people go for!
Most yakitori places will also offer vegetarian versions as well, such as grilled shiitake or enoki (Japanese mushrooms), asparagus, or even tomatoes!
Japanese Dishes #6 – Soba
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour, and are typically served in the more regional areas of Japan. However, in saying that, you can experience soba noodles almost anywhere in the country. It’s also one the healthiest foods in Japan!
Unlike most noodle dishes, you will find that the cold version is almost as popular as the hot version, making it a popular dish across all seasons of the year.
One thing to note about soba noodles is that if they’re made 100% of buckwheat, they become quite breakable, so many restaurants will add a bit of wheat flour to their noodles.
Below are some common soba dishes you should try:
- Mori Soba – This is a cold soba noodle dish that is served on a bamboo tray with a chilled dipping sauce. The stock is usually made of soup, water, and mirin (rice wine).
- Kitsune Soba – This style of soba can be ordered hot or cold. It is served with pieces of aburaage (thin sheets of fried tofu).
- Tempura Soba – This is also served either hot or cold, and comes with a delicious piece of tempura either as an accompaniment on the side or on top of the dish. The tempura ingredients themselves are usually varied. If it’s a cold version, it’s usually served on a tray with some side dishes, but if it’s hot, it comes out in a bowl.
- Kake Soba – One of the simplest soba dishes, kake soba is a bowl of hot, clear both with soba noodles.
- Tsukimi Soba – This hot bowl of soba is served with a raw egg.
- Sansai Soba – This hot bowl of soba is served with cooked wild vegetables.
If you’re a big fan of this unique Japanese dish, you can always book in the opportunity to learn how to make them yourself! This activity is fun, it’s cheap, and it’s also a great way to meet other like-minded travellers. Interested? Click on this link to learn more and book your session now!
Japanese Dishes #7 – Unagi
Unagi, which is freshwater eel, is incredibly popular in Japan. The age-old belief that it is beneficial for your health, whether it be boosting your stamina, increasing your appetite, or replenishing your strength, is one that’s prominent in Japan. Whilst we can’t attest to whether these are true or not, one thing’s for sure: it’s simply superb, and after your first taste, you’ll be craving for more.
The most common way of preparing unagi is called kabayaki, where the unagi fillets are grilled and basted in a savoury yet sweet brown sauce, and then topped with sansho (Japanese red pepper).
We recommend looking out for these common ways of unagi being served:
- Unaju – This is essentially a box of cooked rice with layers of grilled unagi on top. It usually comes with a side of hot soup – highly recommended!
- Unadon – This is basically an unaju dish, but in a bowl.
- Unani Nigiri – In sushi restaurants and conveyor belt restaurants, you can order nigiri topped with unagi. This is a great way to get introduced to unagi and to see whether you enjoy it or not.
Japanese Dishes #8 – Tonkatsu
If you’re being introduced to Japanese cuisine for the first time, tonkatsu might be a dish that jumps out at you, simply because it very much resembles a deep-fried chicken schnitzel!
Tonkatsu is essentially a pork cutlet that has been generously coated in flaky panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. A basic way of serving tonkatsu is topped with a sweet and tangy sauce, with a side of hot yellow mustard. It was first introduced in 20th century Japan, when the wider population began to offer more western-influenced dishes, however, since then, it’s become one of the most common dishes served across Japan to both locals and foreigners.
Below are four ways you can expect to order tonkatsu in Japan:
You can see tonkatsu served almost everywhere in a teishoku (set meal), accompanied by rice, soup, shredded cabbage, and pickles. The idea of the cabbage is that its crisp and fresh flavour provides a contrast to the rich, dense flavour of the tonkatsu, and helps to cleanse the palate in between bites.
Tonkatsu is also a popular option for curry, where the deep-fried cutlet sits on top of the rice, and instead of the normal savoury sweet sauce, is doused in curry instead.
Another great option is to have it as a katsudon, with the tonkatsu cutlet cooked in a broth with scrambled egg and onions, served over rice.
In Japan, people often swap out the ham and egg in sandwiches for a tonkatsu, and call a Katsu Sando. It is basically a fried cutlet with tonkatsu sauce and fresh cabbage served between two fluffy pieces of bread. You can find this at almost all convenience stores.
Japanese Dishes #9 – Tempura
Tempura is a traditional Japanese dish made of ingredients such as seafood and vegetables, battered and deep-fried to a golden colour. It can be served as a main dish, a side dish, or as an accompaniment with rice bowls, udon, or soba noodles. Tempura is very versatile, as it can be served in high-end premium establishments as well as chain restaurants and street stalls.
Did you know that tempura actually has Portuguese roots? Way back in the 16th century, Portuguese merchants brought over the idea of deep-frying battered food in Japan, and since then, it’s taken off, especially during the Edo period, when it became exponentially popular.
Tempura can be found almost anywhere – walking along one street in Tokyo, Osaka, or Sapporo, and you’ll probably come across a handful of tempura restaurants at least. It’s also sold in supermarkets and convenience stores.
Below we’ve listed some of the most popular tempura varieties, most of which you can expect to eat if you order a tempura dish:
- Ebi (prawn) – This is THE most popular style of tempura. Something about the crispiness of the batter and the crunch and juiciness of the prawn inside just impresses everyone.
- Sakana (fish) – You will usually see this as a triangular shaped tempura piece with a tail. Fish that are commonly used include Japanese whiting, whitebait, goby, and sweet fish.
- Kinoko (mushroom) – A popular ingredient to supplement a main tempura dish, or for the vegetarians.
- Kabocha – Japanese pumpkin, served deep-fried with the skin on.
- Nasu (eggplant) – Most tempura restaurants will offer tempura eggplant as part of their dish, as it’s a great option to break up the seafood.
Japanese Dishes #10 – Gyoza
Second only to takoyaki as the nation’s favourite snack, gyoza is a staple for all children growing up, and is enjoyed by the entire population for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and every other possible meal in between. Gyoza are dumplings filled with ground mince meat and vegetables (usually chives, green onion, and cabbage), wrapped in a thin dough. Also known as pot stickers, the idea originally came from China, but Japan has really re-developed them and made gyoza their own.
You can tell gyoza distinctly by their shaped: half-moon dumplings with detailed creasing along their edges. They are always rich in flavour when you bite into them, being seasoned with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil, but nowadays, you can find many gyoza restaurants specialising in their own distinct flavouring.
There are three common ways to prepare and serve gyoza, and they are as follows:
- Pan-fried – This is the most common way to serve gyoza, and, in our opinion, the most authentic and delicious! The dumplings are pan-fried in an extremely hot skillet before a small amount of water and corn-starch is poured into the pan and a lid is placed over it for a few minutes. The steamed trapped underneath the lid will help cook the filling, whilst the water and corn-starch creates a crispy bottom.
- Boiled – This style is the healthier version, and usually comes sitting in a light hot broth.
- Deep-fried – This style is less common than the previous two methods, thus you might only find them in Chinese-Japanese restaurants, or specialty gyoza restaurants.
Well, there you have it! A complete and thorough run-down of the top ten Japanese dishes that you simply have to try when you travel Japan. Even if this is your third or fifth time returning, a shio ramen in Hokkaido is different to a shio ramen in Osaka; tonkatsu in Tokyo will be different to tonkatsu in Fukuoka; unagi prepared in Kyoto will be different to Unagi prepared in Oita.
The wonderful country of Japan is a prime example of just how a culturally and historically rich destination will always provide a new and different experience for anyone, every time they return. Don’t make the mistake of trying a dish only once; try it everywhere, that’s our approach!
If you want to prepare some of these dishes at home, make sure to check out our top Japanese knives blog post.